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Posts Tagged ‘Wu-Tang Clan’

(Above: The RZA and Paul Banks tear down the Tank Room in Kansas City, Mo. with “Giant.” The frenetic performance literally had the floor shaking.) 

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As the guitarist and singer for Interpol and mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Banks and the RZA, a.k.a. Bobby Steelz, have filled and commanded spaces far bigger than the intimate Tank Room. Wednesday night, the duo treated a sold-out crowd to a masterful mashup of indie rock and hip-hop.

The seemingly disparate musical approaches have driven each artist to deliver some of their best work. On party tracks like “Sword in the Stone,” Banks’ soulful indie rock chorus played off RZA’s aggressive verses. Other times, formula reversed itself when RZA’s insistent contribution punctuated Banks moody vocals.

banks-steelzThe hourlong set comprised all but one song of the duo’s debut album, and ignored their other groups. The night started with the soulful yet ominous “Point of View” before exploding with “Ana Electronic.” Fans may not have been able to sing every word, but they had no problem swaying to the beat.

The room reached fever pitch with “Giant,” the album’s lead track, which has been generating airplay and online buzz. As Banks sang “everything is shaking through the walls” on the chorus, the floor was literally pulsing with the rhythms of everyone dancing.

RZA took the stage holding a large bottle of vodka. After several liberal pulls, he distributed cups along the front row and filled them before passing the bottle into the crowd. Later in the show, he popped open a bottle of champagne and sprayed the room.

A woman on the front row and her companion were singled out by RZA to set up “Can’t Hardly Feel,” a song about loving someone who belongs to another.

While the RZA had the flash and energy to command attention, it was in moments like this that Banks quietly stole the spotlight. His plaintive tenor drove not only “Can’t Hardly Feel,” but the philosophical “One by One” and the potent “Speedway Sonora.”

Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick supported the duo, turning the group into an all-star trio. His tight bossa nova rhythms anchored the song “Wild Season” and showed why RZA later called him the human drum machine. The three stretched out instrumentally only once, during “Conceal,” when Banks’ lengthy guitar solo gave way to RZA’s keyboard/organ.

Setlist: Point of View, Ana Electronic, Love and War, Sword in the Stone, Wild Season, Conceal, Speedway Sonora, One By One, Can’t Hardly Feel, Giant, Anything but Words.

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Review: Snoop Dogg with Method Man and Redman

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Peter, Bjorn and John Heart Hip Hop

 

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(Above: The title song from Naomi Shelton’s debut album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first month of 2010 is almost in the history books. Fortunately, there’s still time to take one last look at some overlooked releases from the final quarter of 2009.

The Dodos – “Time to Die”

The Dodos third album isn’t a major departure from 2007’s “Visiter.” Several subtle elements, however, make “Time to Die” an improvement. First off, the San Francisco-based indie duo has added vibraphonist Keaton Snyder to their ranks. His playing adds new textures and new rhythms to the songs. Like Vampire Weekend, the Dodos add elements of African music to their arrangements. Unlike Vampire Weekend, though, the Dodos don’t use world music as a template. They incorporate its ingredient into already solid songs. At times the album recalls a more sophisticated Shins. “Time To Die” is filled with a high sense of melody and smart indie rock songwriting bolstered by intricate arrangements that serve the song.

Blakroc – “Blakroc”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making great garage blues albums for nearly a decade as the Black Keys. After about five albums, however, some staleness started to creep into the formula. After recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their 2008 release, and Auerbach’s early ’09 solo album, the pair dropped their biggest transformation. “Blakroc” pairs the Keys with former Roc-a-fella co-owner Damon Dash and a host of MCs, including Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and members of the Wu Tang Clan. The result is the expected mash-up of rap vocals and raw gutbucket rock that exceeds expectations. Auerbach’s dirty, fuzzy guitars and Carney’s drums add an urgency often lacking in the urban world of sampling. In turn, the MCs feed off the vibe, responding with more bounce and personality in their delivery. More, please.

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done, My Brother?”

Naomi Shelton’s back story should sound familiar to fans of Bettye LaVette. Shelton palled around with pre-fame Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. Despite their encouragement, success eluded Shelton, who played regular gigs around New York City. Thirty years later, Shelton became part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue,” but it took another decade for her debut album to emerge. “What Have You Done, My Brother?” is a classic gospel album that sounds like it could have been cut 50 years ago. Despite its traditional arrangements, the album finds contemporary resonance in the title song, which questions the war in Iraq. Shelton’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is especially poignant. A survivor of the civil rights movement, Shelton combines the longing of Cooke’s vision with the optimism of the Obama-era.

Various Artists – “Daptone Gold”

Daptone Records found fame with the diminutive dynamite Sharon Jones, but the entire stable should appeal to Jones’ fans. “Daptone Gold” is a 22-track sampler of the Daptone roster. While Jones is appropriately represented (sometimes through non-album tracks), there are no bum cuts. The old school gospel of Naomi Shelton sets nicely next to Antibalas’ political Afrobeat and the instrumental soul of the Budos Band. Other artists include Stax throwbacks Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Hip hop fans will recognize “Make the Road By Walking,” the Menahan Street Band track Jay-Z smartly sampled for his own “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” At 78 minutes, this generous sampler will certainly send newcomers diving into the back catalog for more.

Rakim – “The Seventh Seal”

Rakim made his name as one of rap’s premier MCs with his groundbreaking albums with Eric B in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s been 10 years since the world has heard anything from Rakim. During that decade he toured sporadically and signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. The prospect of Dre making beats for Rakim made fans salivate, but unfortunately “The Seventh Seal” is not that long-awaited album. It’s difficult to forget about that hypothetical masterpiece with all the b-list production that plagues “The Seventh Seal.” Rakim sports enough killer flow to justify his reputation, but tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and album opener “How To Emcee” are more stilted and dated than anything on “Paid in Full” or “Follow the Leader.” While there are enough moments on “The Seventh Seal” to make it a must-have for old school fans, casual listeners should probably just ask the devoted to cull a few cuts from this for a killer Rakim mixtape.

(Below: “Holy Are You,” one of the better cuts off Rakim’s “The Seventh Seal.”)

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More album reviews from The Daily Record.

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(Above: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of many artists to get some love in a recent Oxford American music writing anthology.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Oxford American “Southern Music Issue” is an annual treat, loaded with great writing that unearths wonderful stories on longtime favorites and introduces several new discoveries. Coupled with a CD – in recent years it’s come with two discs – the magazine effectively serves as the ultimate set of liner notes to a killer compilation.

Now in its 11th year, these editions are been rightfully prized; back issues frequently fetch more triple face value online. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way for new readers to access the previously published essays and features.

The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing compiles the best articles from the magazine’s first decade. The 420-page book reads like a mixtape, transitioning smoothly from all the usual suspects – blues, country, jazz, rock and bluegrass – and spiking the playlist with pieces on Southern metal, the Sex Pistols and the art of playing.

Several of the best features provide an intimate view of the artist or their environment. Tom Piazza’s account on hanging out backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry with snubbed bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is so awkward Ricky Gervais could turn it into a screenplay. Similarly, John Lewis’ weekend at Ike Turner’s house puts the much-savaged abuser in new light, particularly when the host shows up in his pajamas at the end of the day to thank Lewis for coming and hug him goodnight.

A history of jazzman Bob Dorough by Paul Reyes takes us from the obscure keyboard player’s origins touring with Sugar Ray Robinson, recording “Blue Xmas” with a dismissive Mile Davis and ultimately as the force behind Schoolhouse Rocks. The line from “Up a Lazy River” to “Conjunction Junction” was never so clear.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s description of a night at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint with R.L. Burnside and Cynthia Shearer’s search for understanding in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas both paint a clear picture of the artists’ native perspectives. One can feel the plywood sweat at Junior’s Place and imagine Joplin longing for some niche in town where she felt comfortable and ultimately yearning to get the heck out.

Despite a mention of Wu Tang Clan producer RZA in the introduction, the book eschews hip hop and most new music. A dated piece on R.E.M. circa “Automatic for the People” is the only time when the mainstream and the modern intersect. But while the book doesn’t touch on modern artists, it will certainly send readers scrambling back to dusty old platters, either on vinyl, acetate or plastic, to unearth old favorites, possibly for the first time.

Easier to carry than a stack of magazines, less trouble to hunt down online, the Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing will be a pleasant voyage for adventurous fans of both good writing and good music.

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 (Above: Snoop Dogg performs a medley of old hits on Nov. 6 at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
The revue that brought rappers Snoop Dogg, Method Man and Redman to the Voodoo Lounge on Friday was called the “Wonderland High School Tour.” The promoters should have inserted the word “reunion.”

Hip-hop has turned the corner as a genre. Its former disposable nature and willingness to discard any artist who dared to fall behind a trend, regardless of their past successes, has shifted to establishing legacy artists.

Despite releasing new –- and very good –- material, the three artists were more than happy to trade on their old numbers for most of the evening’s performances.

The sold-out crowd couldn’t have been happier.

After opening with a trio of cuts from his new album-length collaboration with Redman, “Blackout! 2,” including the excellent singles “A-Yo” and “City Lights,” sometime Wu-Tang Clan MC Method Man announced his intentions.

“We want to take this back to when hip-hop was good,” he declared, before launching into Redman’s 1992 song “Time 4 Sum Aksion.” That was followed by Meth’s signature song, the 1993 Wu-Tang classic “Method Man.”

A couple hours later, Snoop Dogg echoed the sentiment. Asking the crowd who came to hear the “classic stuff,” he beamed when the audience erupted in screams.

Snoop opened his 80-minute set with “The Next Episode.” The five-piece backing band added muscle and intensity to Dr. Dre’s nimble arrangements. The hits “P.I.M.P.,” originally recorded with 50 Cent in 2003, and 1993’s breakthrough “Gin and Juice” followed, sending the audience into ecstasy.

Snoop was so enamored with his early ‘90s, Death Row heyday he brought out Lady of Rage to deliver her part on a song from “Doggystyle,” Snoop’s debut album, and her one hit, “Afro-Puffs.”

Rage has been missing in action for better than a decade, but everyone sang along to her hit like Newt Gingrich had just announced the Contract with America. Snoop was all smiles, slinking around the stage and working the crowd as Rage took the spotlight.

The Death Row glory days connection was reinforced when Snoop paid tribute to 2Pac with a performance of “Hail Mary.”

There were some concessions to newer material. “Riding in My Chevy” was well received, but the magnificent “Drop It Like It’s Hot” was tethered to a cover of House of Pain’s 1992 hit “Jump Around.” Why did Snoop feel he needed to attach his song to a one-hit wonder? Also a mystery is why Snoop chose to ignore his upcoming album except for a quick plug at the end of the set.

At any rate, “Hot” was the finest musical moment of the night. The full band fleshed out the bare-bones album arrangement, adding deeper bass and bigger bass. The performance gradually built in intensity until both band and crowd alike were flat-out rocking.

The biggest problem with Snoop’s set was his over-reliance on back-up MCs Kurupt and Daz Dillinger. Their solo turns took time away from other song Snoop could have performed and their backing role was the equivalent of Garrett Morris delivering the news for the hearing impaired on Saturday Night Live.

A medley of “Deep Cover,” “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” and “B— Please” went off like a flash pot. A delirious crowd devoured every beat, recited every syllable and danced furiously. It was the hip hop equivalent of “Jump” or even “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Snoop closed with another crowd-pleaser: “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”

Snoop’s laid-back delivery and contentment to stroll and swagger across the stage stood in contrast to the kinetic energy of Method Man and Redman. The pair barely stood still throughout their hour-long set, delivery Wu-Tang favorites, solo cuts like “Bring the Pain” and “You’re All I Need To Get By” and the obligatory tribute to deceased Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

The duo was backed by frequent Wu-Tang producer Mathematics and DJ Nice and scored points with the pro-cannabis crowd by performing weed anthems “How High” and “Part II.” Marijuana was a reoccurring theme of the night. A pair of sheriffs camped on either side of the club entrance and the beginning of the night and a lingering presence later in the night quashed many would-be smokers. The dense clouds produced by the overhead smoke machines created enough cover for the rest.

The evening kicked off promptly at 8 p.m. with the only performer who wasn’t tied to the 1990s. Devin the Dude provided an hour of rhymes about women and weed. His base lyrics and laconic delivery found many fans in the crowd but were no match for what followed.

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(Above: Kanye West and Peter, Bjorn and John marry indie rock to hip hop in  “Young Folks.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The distance between whistling and beat-boxing shrank considerably once Kanye West got involved.

When West sampled Peter, Bjorn and John’s whistle-based sensation “Young Folks” for his mixtape, he not only united the worlds of indie rock and hip-hop, he also awakened Peter, Bjorn and John’s burgeoning love of urban music.

“When I first heard his version I thought it was a joke,” drummer John Eriksson said. “I didn’t think it’s strange, though, because a lot of hip-hop artists are trying to get more rock with a lot of electric guitars and the rest.”

West proved his indie rock cred when he asked the Swedish trio to perform the mashup during his set at the 2007 Way Out West festival. The collaboration helped open the band’s ears to new ways of presenting its music. The commercial follow-up to “Young Folks” was this year’s “Living Thing,” which disposed of guitars and traditional drumming and embraced icy synthesizers, spare arrangements and altered percussion.

“Many people think the drums on ‘Living Thing’ are programmed, but it’s not,” said Eriksson, whose band performs Friday night at the Granada in Lawrence. “Eighty percent of the sounds are acoustic but turned to make it sound like a drum machine or given a spaced-out, futuristic sound.”

Hip-hop wasn’t much of an influence when the band formed in 1999, but at the end of the “Living Thing” sessions, singer Peter Moren tried what would have been unthinkable 10 years ago and rapped an entire song.

“I didn’t think it was good enough (to make the album), so we tried to get someone else to do the vocals,” Eriksson said. “That’s how we met Mick Boogie, who helped us come up with the idea of having other people rap over all of our songs.”

The resulting remix album was dubbed “Re-Living Thing” and features original rhymes by GZA, Talib Kweli, Three 6 Mafia, Bun B and Rhymefest, with production from Jazzy Jeff, 6th Sense and Apple Juice Kid.

“I’ve only heard three versions so far. Jazzy Jeff did a fantastic job on his track, and I can’t wait to hear the others,” Eriksson said. “Knowing GZA from Wu Tang is on there makes me want to cry, almost. It seems surreal he’s doing something with one of our songs. I don’t know how Mick convinced him to take part. Maybe they played chess and Mick won.”

After the band released an online- and vinyl-only instrumental album last year and commissioned friends to make different arrangements of past singles for vinyl release, Eriksson feels like Peter, Bjorn and John fans should be up for anything.

“I think our fans are used to us doing weird, surprising stuff. A couple tracks on last year’s instrumental album have a Swedish narrative in the old dialect,” Eriksson said. “After five albums, by now people should be open to who we are. Maybe our next album will be trash-metal mixed with Stockhausen.”

Hesitant or curious fans won’t have to part with much to hear the results. “Re-Living Thing” will be released online today for free.

“That’s just how it works these days. Music is free,” Eriksson said. “When you make music, you don’t think about how to make money. Usually other people do that.”

Eriksson said most of the band’s money comes from licensing songs like “Young Folks” to TV shows and commercials. The corporate funds pay for the band’s creative ventures, like jazz and hip-hop remixes.

“When people ask us if they can use songs in commercials, we think about what the commercial is for. We won’t say yes to banks, McDonald’s and things we don’t agree with,” Eriksson said. “When it’s something we like — like TV shows, beer, maybe ice cream, stuff people need — we have no problem. It’s the only way we can make money. I wish we could sell albums, but most of our money is from that.”

Friday
Peter, Bjorn and John perform Friday night at the Granada, 1020 Massachusetts in Lawrence. Cowboy Indian Bear opens at 9 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $15. Visit www.thegranada.com.

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By Joel Francis

When RZA needed a hook for “C.R.E.A.M.” he turned to the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” and joined a large fraternity of rappers and producers who have leaned on the Stax catalog for their tracks. And though Stax has provided the samples for hits by Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and countless others, the source material has somehow remained in the secret province of crate-diggers.

Until now. “Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop” is 14 wonderfully selected, mostly obscure late-period Stax cuts released as part of Concord Record’s revitalization of the label. It’s unlikely that many Ghostface Killah fans listening to “Supreme Clientele” would have the urge to track down the source material for “The Grain.” But listening to Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin” on this compilation not only sheds light on the music that informed Ghostface – it’s fun enough to make the album more than a history lesson.

It’s great if De La Soul and Cypress Hill are the reasons these song sound familiar, but the collection succeeds because it dusts off great songs that are ignored on most retrospectives. 24-Carat Black’s lone album was ignored in 1973. That album’s title track “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” opens this compilation with a slab of socially conscious funk. The female trio the Emotions found their greatest success with Earth, Wind and Fire in the late ‘70s, but “Blind Alley” shows they were fully formed pop soul act long before Maurice White helmed their albums.

The Dramatics’ “Get Up and Get Down” foreshadows the disco movement, while Little Milton’s “Packed Up and Took My Mind” is the marriage of soul and blues that Robert Cray has been chasing for 20 years. The inclusion of Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and the MGs tosses a bone to casual fans, although two Hayes cuts may be one too many.

The only misstep is a song that dates from Stax’ early days with Atlantic Records. Wendy Rene’s 1964 track “After the Laughter (Come Tears)” is an unconvincing ballad whose best quality is a great calliope organ line. Complaining about this cut, the extra Hayes track and the wish that the producers would have packed the disc with more tracks, though, misses the point and spoils a great treasure.

This set not only proves that the hip hop samplers had immaculate taste, but that they weren’t just cherry picking.  While they may have only mined 10 or 15 seconds from each track, the ore runs consistently deep through each performance.

If hip hop is the reason for this collection to exist and that marketing angle will draw those fans to this music, then so be it. But a celebration this fun doesn’t need an excuse.

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Rock the Bells Zack

Public Enemy, Black Star, The Roots and Wu-Tang fight the Battle of the Bay in San Francisco

By Joel Francis

The Giants may have been out of town, but that didn’t stop the hits from pouring across McCovey Cove near ATT Stadium when the Rock the Bells festival landed in San Francisco last week.


It was a dream bill that 45,000 fans of ‘90s hip hop couldn’t resist, but with two stages of incredible lineups performing simultaneously some sacrifices had to be made. In the end, The Roots won over The Coup and Public Enemy trumped Blackalicious. Below are some of the day’s highlights.


Public Enemy

Public Enemy was raging against the machine before there was a Rage Against the Machine. Backed by a full band, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Terminator X showed that songs written during Reagan and Bush Sr. still had plenty of both relevance and resonance. The band did their best Rage tribute with a version of “Son of a Bush” that’s unlikely to win any fans at Fox News. That said, Chuck D probably knows he’s unlikely to win any new fans in the era of T.I., Chamillionaire and, shudder, Flavor of Love, so the band mostly stuck to songs off its groundbreaking initial albums like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” “Fight the Power,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” and “Public Enemy No. 1.” Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian popped out to lend his axe to “Bring the Noise” and Flavor Flav closed down the set with a performance of “911 Is A Joke” that had the crowd rapping along.


The Roots

As anyone who saw the Roots perform at the Voodoo Lounge last spring can attest, this Philadelphia-based band is one of the most engaging and entertaining performers in the business – regardless of genre. Giving the only 45 minutes was criminal, though predictably the band made the most of what they had. MC Black Thought and drummer/bandleader ?uestlove opened the set with drums-and-mic duet “Web” before the rest of the band and a three-piece horn section joined them. Every song was a highlight, but to watch the group transition from the hip hop beats of “The Next Movement”  to the funky rock of “The Seed 2.0” to the neo-soul flavors of “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” and finally a Philly soul cover of “I Can Understand It” was mind-bogglingly delicious.


Talib Kweli and Mos Def

Mos Def and Talib Kweli have only made one album together which was released nearly a decade ago, but they are still linked in most fans’ minds. There’s good reason for this, as each bring out the best in the other. Mos Def is one of the most improvisational MCs in the business, which is both a blessing and a curse. On his best nights, he rivals most jazz performers with his reworkings of song. On an off night, he comes across as bored. Kweli is one of the best MCs in the game (you don’t get props from Jay-Z on record for nothing) who keeps getting better, but can at times slip into auctioneer mode. Kweli keeps Mos from wandering off, while Mos pushes Kweli’s cadences.

Kweli opened the set on his own, teasing songs from his new album, “Ear Drum,” and launching into classics like “The Blast” and “Move Something,” before bringing out Strong Arm Steady and Jean Grae. Though the guests – especially Grae – were a nice surprise, Kweli was at his best when the DJ dropped out and let Kweli rhyme a cappella. Mos Def took the stage halfway through “Get By” and the results were as close to jazz as two men with a mic are likely to get. From there the duo segued into the classic “Definition,” “Supreme Supreme,” a newer collaboration, and “Respiration.”


Mos performed most of his set on the ground in the area between the stage and the crowd barricade after noticing the strong wind off the bay had the lighting rigs swaying like chandeliers. “It’s hard enough to be a black man in America,” he quipped. “I got kids, y’all.” Fortunately, video cameras and three giant screens kept Mos from being invisible at ground level as he worked his way through a set heavy on newer material. Mos closed with a great medley of “Ms. Fat Booty” and “Brown Skin Lady,” which brought Kweli back out and, finally, “Umi Says.”


Wu-Tang Clan

Hip hop as a live medium tends to get a bad rap (sorry) and acts like Wu-Tang Clan are Exhibit A on how something that sounds great on record doesn’t always transfer well to the stage. Part of the problem is the makeup of the group. There are nine MCs in the Clan, which can be a nightmare at the mixing board. Throughout the evening, each mic was mixed at a different level, rendering lots of vocals inaudible and resulting in something that sounded like loud choreographed chanting. Most songs could only be recognized by the sample or the chorus. Oddly enough the evening’s finest number, “Triumph,” had little in the way of either. Method Man carried the rest of the Clan on his back and carried the night (when he wasn’t crowd surfing and being carried by the crowd), which leaned heavily towards the group’s debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”


Rage Against the Machine

After seven years and nearly two presidential terms apart, Rage reclaimed the stage with a force and energy so powerful a S.W.A.T. team should have assembled. In between Wu-Tang and Rage’s sets, the crowd quickly morphed from a diverse, backpacker good-times gathering to a muscular, white frat-boy mosh pit. There was a mixture of menace and testosterone in the air as a crowd who had patiently waited through three Audioslave albums hungered for the return of the real thing.

They weren’t disappointed. Singer Zack De La Rocha led the band through over a dozen volatile indictments that included hits like “Bombtrack,” “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerilla Radio” with album cuts like “Bullet in the Head,” “Vietnow” and the Afrika Bambaataa cover “Renegades of Funk.” This was the musical equivalent of “Fight Club.”


As the festival closed, the defiant refrain of “Killing in the Name” hung in the air. Seven years was too long to wait, but the combustion of Rage’s 80-minute set made it understandable why these ingredients couldn’t be mixed too often.

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